Herbert James Buchanan was born in North Fitzroy in Melbourne on 10 March 1902 and briefly attended Scotch College before joining the Royal Australian Naval College as a thirteen year old Cadet Midshipman in 1916. He remained under training at Jervis Bay until his graduation in 1919 and posting to sea as a Midshipman. He served in a variety of sea appointments during the 1920s and 1930s, specialising in gunnery at HMS Excellent and being promoted Lieutenant in 1924 and Lieutenant Commander in 1932. A man of considerable physical presence and energy, Buchanan soon achieved a reputation as an officer of the highest ability and considerable technical expertise. He demonstrated, too, an impatience with obstacles and interference which made him an excellent practical leader who could achieve good results at sea but which would make life difficult for himself in higher staff appointments.
On 21 March 1932, Buchanan married Florence Knarhoei Ellis. The two enjoyed a long and happy marriage and had two sons, one of whom was to join the RAN College as a Cadet Midshipman in 1951.
Buchanan was a gunnery officer in the cruiser HMAS Australia in 1935-36, a commission which included service in the Mediterranean during the Abyssinian Crisis. Promoted Commander in 1938 while serving as the Australian Squadron Gunnery Officer, he attended the RN Staff Course at Greenwich in 1939.
The outbreak of the war found Buchanan appointed to the British cruiser HMS Diomede as Executive Officer but he was soon posted to take up his first command, the newly refitted anti aircraft escort destroyer HMS Valentine, which commissioned at Devonport on 23 April 1940. With little time to work up Valentine‘s ship’s company soon found themselves in the thick of action as the Germans invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and then swept into northern France. Protecting shipping in support of Dutch forces on the island of Walcheren, Valentine was bombed and sunk by Junkers 87 Stuka dive bombers on 15 May.
Buchanan survived unharmed and was soon sent to take charge of beach control parties during the Dunkirk evacuation. For ‘good services’ in Valentine and at Dunkirk, Buchanan was Mentioned in Dispatches and also appointed as a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The latter was one of the first to be awarded in the RAN during the Second World War. Buchanan was soon back at sea in command of the destroyer HMS Vanity in which he served until early 1941. In both Valentine and Vanity, Buchanan earned glowing reports from his seniors as a ship captain and, for the first time, was recommended for accelerated promotion.
Buchanan returned to Australia and for two years served as Assistant Director of Plans in Navy Office, Melbourne where he became deeply involved in the development of Garden Island Dockyard, and the Captain Cook Graving Dock, as well as the introduction or radar into the RAN. At times Buchanan’s energy led him into conflict and he became involved in a dispute with the staff of the Australian Squadron’s Commander over the division of responsibilities between the Squadron and Navy Office. Although this problem disappeared with the entry of Japan into the war, the Chief of Naval Staff later shrewdly observed that Buchanan’s lack of tact sometimes introduced difficulties “in his work which would not otherwise arise”.
On 26 May 1943, Buchanan took command of the destroyer HMAS Norman, serving with the British Eastern Fleet. In both Norman and Napier, which he joined on his appointment as acting Captain and Captain (D) Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, he confirmed his reputation as a leader and ship captain second to none. Buchanan worked hard to ensure that Australian ships received adequate logistic support (mail being a particularly vexing issue) and bombarded his superiors with suggestions for improvements in gunnery and radar operations. At the end of 1944 his promotion to Captain was confirmed. Buchanan remained with the N Class destroyers in the Eastern and Pacific Fleets for the remainder of the war and the Japanese surrender found him commanding the Commonwealth elements of the landing force that occupied Yokosuka.
In October 1945 Buchanan was recalled to Navy Office as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff for a year to work under Admiral Sir Louis Hamilton. The two struck up a firm friendship and Buchanan played a leading role in the post-war planning process, particularly in the development of a carrier force and improved anti-submarine capabilities. He returned to sea to command in succession the cruisers HMA Ships Shropshire and Australia.
Buchanan attended the Imperial Defence College course in London in 1949 and then served as a Commodore (Second Class) in command of the training depot HMAS Cerberus until the end of 1952. Here Buchanan found ample space to exercise his talents as a leader with a particular interest in his sailors’ welfare. He was involved in the foundation of the White Ensign Club for sailors on leave and he also enlisted the support of prominent members of the local and Melbourne communities for this and other activities, including the construction of a chapel.
On completion of his command of Cerberus he reverted to the rank of Captain and was appointed in command of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney which he took to the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Review in 1953. He was also created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) that year and promoted Commodore (First Class) and appointed as Second Naval Member and Chief of Naval Personnel. He held this responsible billet until early 1955 when he took up the position of Flag Officer-in-Charge East Australia Area. Buchanan remained in this appointment until he retired from the Royal Australian Navy in 1957. Upon retiring, Buchanan received an honorary promotion to Rear Admiral.
Rear Admiral Herbert Buchanan passed away on 15 March 1965.